One day I suspect we’ll hear the story behind why Avalanche’s Generation Zero feels like being served a pizza that’s all beautifully crisp sourdough base but no sauce whatsoever. It’s a bemusing, hollow misfire as a shooter, barely-there as a story, and its appealing rural Scandi landscapes mask entirely interchangeable interiors that would make an unflattering Ikea stereotype tumble from the lips of even the most old-chestnut-avoidant of commentators.
It is bobbins. But it didn’t have to be. Moreover, viewed from a certain angle, played a certain way, maybe it still doesn’t have to be. This first-person shooter could be redeemed – but it would need to lose the first-person shooting.
Gen Zero could have been wonderful if it was a better shooter, but it could also have been wonderful if it wasn’t a shooter at all. Which would obviously lose it 80% of its intended audience, but the remaining 20% of us would have been so much happier.
Someone has put a ridiculous amount of work into building a huge tract of Swedish countryside, split across archipelagos, scattered with farms, churches, tiny towns, moon-kissed forests with fluttering leaves and tiny, ramshackle docks, all blessed with a full, luxurious day-night cycle and changeable weather. Someone, presumably, spent many months or years convinced they were making something fabulous, for a game that would be enormous. It puts me in mind of Stalker and The Witcher 3: they made not just a map, but a world whose ribcage you could see moving when it breathed.
I will say that the released game is nothing like as sharp and arresting as the promotional imagery made it appear, which I’m disappointed but not angry about – it’s still frequently beautiful, despite an unfortunately murky patina that robs it of the lushness of, say, Everbody’s Gone To The Rapture.
Exactly what happened to make this so is perhaps for the birds, but the ‘game’ element of the Generation Zero is the real let-down, as Emily explained in our Generation Zero review. I enjoyed my first few robo-skirmishes, and I still get a little tickle out of distracting or confusing a Big Lad with a thrown flare or firework, so I can sneak past them instead of battling them.
All-told, though, the action quickly fell into dull routine, further hamstrung by the sort of beyond-grim inventory management usually reserved for only taking a couple of plastic bags to the supermarket and being absolutely bloody determined not to spend 5p on another one. Nothing is truly disastrous, but the bobbins abides.
My proposed solution is not to try and improve the bobbins, but to excise the bobbins completely. That means remove the shooting, those looped skirmishes against a tiny variety of (admittedly strikingly-designed) robots with a tiny variety of uninteresting weapons, and the attendant scavenging through cloned houses for ammo and upgrades. It’s just unsatisfying grind with delusions of open-world grandeur.
There are two ways to go from there, but in both cases keep the robots. Repeat, keep the robots: while fighting them is only very occasionally a pleasure, unexpectedly seeing their clanking steel forms in the branches that blow in the breeze, or patrolling a midnight road, or a beach at sunset, or a cornfield at sunrise, is frequently startling. Magical, if it weren’t also so potentially lethal.
Suggestion the first: a walking simulator. The robots are just wildlife, ten-foot startled rabbits and whirring iron gulls and halogen-eyed deer. They’re there to be admired, maybe they even skitter away in fear. The spell of this remarkably Swedish countryside need never be shattered by entering the cloned, flatpacked building interiors, for there would no longer be any call to do so, no grim hunt for bullets or go-nowhere story beats.
Just the woods, the farms, the graveyards, the shorelines, the sinister underground bunkers, the empty cars, the ancient castle ruins, the moon and the stars.
And the robots, of course. Definitely keep the robots. Lost the story though: I don’t need a reason for the robots to be there, or why people aren’t. Show don’t tell.
Or: maybe there’s a way to make the robots more than heavy metal scenery. Make them something to be avoided, never assaulted. The systems for this already exist in the game – sight-and-sound-based stealth, and the use of flares, fireworks, boomboxes and robo-tech signals to distract, lure or confuse the mysterious mechanical menaces. When I played Gen Zero solo, there were occasionally situations I couldn’t hope to survive – a mid-sized ‘bot guarding a bridge, no other way to the opposite shore except right through it. Or… lob a firework at it and it spins in overwhelmed circles as the lightshow plays out, while I scuttle past.
In other situations, desperate sprints through the woods as something angrily clicks and buzzes at my heels, jumping off small cliffs and finding wounded safety in a darkened copse.
Or simply taking the long way around, crouch-walking through a ditch or over a tree-shielded hill or winding clifftop path, to avoid the lethal exposure of the faster road. Using infrared and nightvision to scout a scene for metal murderers before I ventured forth. Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture vs Sir, You Are Being Hunted.
What if it was just that? I think I’d like that.
Maybe it was that, once. There are enough vestigal traces of an intention to be more stealth-centric that I’d be surprised if it wasn’t ever explored. Perhaps feet got cold, perhaps that’s why we got this unsatisfying mutant, part shooter, part walking sim, part stealth, part lonely survival-scavenging.
Generation Zero doesn’t know what it is. Who knows why? But there is something magical there, underneath the combat chaff, despite the arguably compromised graphics tech. I can’t find anything yet, but maybe one day soon someone’ll uncover the console command or cheat that turns off enemy aggression. When that day comes, I shall go for a walk, and I shall thoroughly enjoy it.